Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen: A Novel

by Kate Taylor
424 pages,
ISBN: 0385658346

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Shattering Dichotomies
by Rhea Tregebov

Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen is Globe and Mail theatre critic Kate Taylor's ambitious first novel. The book opens within the restrained, contemplative mind of Sophie Weil Bensimon, who is visiting the famous PFre Lachaise cemetery in Paris, musing over the graves of her own and her husband's family, as well as those of Oscar Wilde, the Comte de Montesquiou and other notables of the fin de siFcle, including Marcel Proust. Though the passage is undated, it takes place sometime late in 1941, and Sophie and her husband, who are Jewish, have just spent their life savings to send their twelve-year-old daughter to safety outside of Occupied France. Towards the end of the novel, Marie PrTvost, a thirty-something Canadian visiting Paris, also wanders, at the beginning of the present century, through PFre Lachaise. She has made a pilgrimage to Proust's grave, and has inadvertently come across the Bensimon and Weil graves in the Jewish section of the cemetery. In between these two points of coincidence, or fate, Taylor interweaves Marie's story with those of two other women, Sarah Bensimon and Jeanne Proust.
Sarah is Sophie's daughter. Unlike the great majority of European Jews who sought refuge in Canada, Sarah has managed to land safely in a modest home on Gladstone Avenue in Toronto into the welcome of Sam and Rachel Plot, a childless Jewish couple. Although Sarah is physically unscathed by the war, she is psychologically damaged by the loss of her family, whose fates remain for many years unknown to her. Jeanne Proust, the mother of Marcel, is the "Mme. Proust" of the book's title. Born Jeanne-Clemence Weil, she was raised in a wealthy and cultivated Jewish family. The excerpts from Mme. Proust's diary, which run from 1890 through 1905, offer us an intriguing window onto the events of the day¨centrally the Dreyfus Affair, over which the Proust family is divided¨through the perspective of this subtle, sensitive and intelligent character.
It is Marie PrTvost who joins the narratives of these two Weil women. Marie, a disconsolate translator-interpreter, has come, like so many others, to Paris to forget. She finds diversion from her woes in the archives of the BibliothFque Nationale, where she has discovered the long-forgotten diaries of Mme. Proust. Marie's fascination with Marcel becomes a fascination with Mme., and the act of translating the diaries becomes (too tidily?) a catalyst for freeing Marie's own creativity, as well as a means of escape from the obsession that made her flee her life in Montreal. Marie has for her entire young womanhood been labouring, in good Proustian fashion, under the anguish of her rejection by Max, the perplexing, exotic, hyper-sensitive and irresistible young man she met as an undergraduate at McGill.
Marie is initially drawn to Max because, like herself, he speaks a Parisian French. Marie feels herself defined by an alienating double identity. She is the daughter of an English mother and a French-Canadian father who (like Taylor) was born in France in the 1960s and then moved to Canada as a teenager. Marie is fascinated by the "otherness" that Max, as a Jew, represents because of the otherness she herself experiences. Taylor examines the difficult dualities of Marie's opposing French/English identities with a sensitivity and acuity that is reminiscent of the late Carole Corbeil's very fine first novel, Voiceover. "Marie is just French for Mary, the Virgin's name, a plain enough label in English, slightly prettified by its rendition in French as ma-rie. But say it in English¨mu-ree¨and it's a silly, pretentious little name Ó I am Marie, but would rather not be Marie."
The character of Jeanne Proust is also convincing. As in Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, there is a particular frisson that is generated by handing the mike over, so to speak, to a secondary character¨in Mme. Proust's case historical as well as fictional. And there is a particular satisfaction, for me at least, in seeing the female object of male fiction become subject herself and take the narrative into her own hands. Taylor successfully assumes the voice of Mme. Proust and evokes a credible and compelling character. She also richly establishes the political and cultural milieu inhabited by those long-dead Parisians whom Sophie Bensimon later visits in the chaste aisles of PFre Lachaise.
The architecture of Taylor's book is in itself thought-provoking. As the connections among the stories of her three protagonists are disclosed, the author suggests that the parallels displayed will, ultimately, yield some greater meaning. For example, both Marie and Sarah are removed at a young age from a beloved Parisian setting; in their longing for a lost Eden neither fully settles into any other home. Both women try imaginatively to reconstruct the lost beloved¨Sarah seeing her mother everywhere, Marie seeing Max everywhere. The correspondences come in delicate details¨Sophie searching for pebbles to mark her visit to her parents' grave, Sarah searching for pebbles for the eyes of a snowman she is building for her son¨as well as large thematic constructs.
This structure of parallelism insists upon connection, disrupting the opposing structure of dichotomy, the dualism that traps Taylor's protagonists: meat/milk, gentile/Jew, English/ French, homosexual/heterosexual. There is, particularly for those, like Taylor, like myself, raised in the shadow of the Holocaust, something profoundly resonant in the proposal that dislocation and loss is our determining condition. The shadow, we know, is a long one, one under which Taylor's characters, whether they are Jewish or gentile, live, though they often fail to thrive. For this is a novel permeated by grief. Where love, parental or romantic, does find a place in the book, it is invariably unrequited or failed.
Towards the end of the book, in an upsurge of grief generated by the death of her foster mother, Sarah attacks her rigorously kosher kitchen: "The little pots in ribbed white porcelain into which she had so often poured crFme caramel crashed down to join the dinner plates on which she had served a boeuf bourguignon made with oyster mushrooms, pearl onions, and a solid red wine. Ó Milchik and flayshig, the two sets of dishes came pouring from their cupboards, breaking, shattering, smashing until Sarah stood weeping in a pile of fragments." It is a glorious, restorative moment, one in which constrictive categories are destroyed, as well as one in which Sarah and Max are at last in one another's arms.
For Sarah has eventually been revealed as Max's mother. His overbearing, over-protective, controlling and hyper-anxious mother. And Max has been revealed to be homosexual; this is the reason for his rejection of Marie. The novel intends us to see Proust in the hypersensitive Max and Jeanne in the over-protective Sarah. I find this a hollow, and even disquieting, suggestion on a number of fronts. And, as I became impatient with Marie's fixation on Max, ultimately I found this element of her story less than engaging. We love all sorts of people who don't or can't or won't love us back. Not being able to love someone else is not a betrayal, and I wanted more of Marie, more for her.
Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen is, nonetheless, a rich, satisfying novel, one which is thoughtful and generous towards its characters as well as its readers. "What right do I have to go foraging in someone else's history?" Taylor has Marie ask. The novel answers that question in the affirmative. ˛

Rhea Tregebov is a poet and children's author who thinks that she has at long last finished writing her first adult novel.

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